[Viewpoint] Don’t play with education

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[Viewpoint] Don’t play with education

In Korea, education is a very sensitive issue. People went crazy over a promise that students could get into college with a single outstanding skill. The pledge to lower private education costs instantly boosted the popularity of its proponents. So politicians are often tempted to make promises to change educational policy.

When they do so, however, it almost always explodes in their faces.

After all, there are only a finite number of seats in colleges. Just about every time the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is held, students and parents pour out complaints about the test being too hard or too easy. All the criticism is targeted at the government, whether the CSAT is too easy or too difficult. The 17 years of CSAT administration have been a history of troubles.

Do education experts determine the difficulty level of the CSATs? Not a chance. In Korea, that’s an issue decided by the nation’s president. President Kim Dae-jung’s principle was to offer easy exams. So a sequence of so-called “watery CSATs” were administered. The highlight of that period was the 2001 CSAT, when students had to reluctantly apply for colleges they actually didn’t want to go to because of just a one point difference in their CSAT exam results.

There were various conspiracy theories in the aftermath, and when the government started really feeling the pressure, it came up with the roughest test ever, the so-called “fiery CSAT.” The victims were later dubbed the “Lee Hae-chan Generation,” paying dubious honor to Education Minister Lee Hae-chan. Many students gave up in the middle and left the examination center in tears. Four days later, President Kim made an apology and said it was regrettable that students and parents trusted the government but ended up with a shocking CSAT. His approval rating sharply dropped to 15 percent.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration also meddled with the CSAT. Its most notable experiment was the tier grading system for the 2008 CSAT, in which students were lumped into nine tiers depending on their scores. But within the tiers, all students were judged the same, disregarding who did better. Although it had noble intentions - preventing excessive college entrance competition - the outcome was disastrous.

Again, a single point determined the fate of many students if that point pushed them into a lower tier, and even those at the top were unable to get into the colleges of their choice. A number of administrative lawsuits were filed, and the students called themselves “the cursed students born in 1989.” The system was abolished the following year after a torrent of criticism. The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s approval rating plummeted.

Ominous signs are in the air in advance of this year’s CSAT. There have been too many fancy promises made, and they have to be too good to be true. One percent of the test takers will receive 100 percent marks in each subject, and 70 percent of the test problems will be based on EBS study materials.

However, negative signs are already very strong. The Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation’s mock exam in June was basically a copy of EBS texts, and students are expecting another “watery CSAT,” which they see as a campaign gimmick for next year’s elections. There is a conspiracy theory that the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation did so in the face of government pressure.

In cyberspace, students are watching a video titled “The CSAT Is Dead,” created by the head of a private academy. Among 424 postings on the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation Web site, over 400 are critical.

Giving one percent of the students taking the test a perfect score is a political gimmick and an overly ambitious promise. Students with a perfect CSAT score and top ranking won’t be guaranteed entry to even a mid-level university in Seoul. Serious chaos will surely follow.

Over 700,000 students are expected take the CSAT in 2011 and 2012, the largest number in history. They are the second generation of baby boomers. We can easily expect catastrophe if the government needlessly meddles with the CSAT. The examination has a destructive power that can bring down not only the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, but the entire administration.

The government needs to retract the unrealistic promises before it is too late. The Chun Doo Hwan authoritarian government cooled off the college admission craze of its time by increasing admission quotas and completely banning private tutoring by law. Under the quota system, students could easily get into colleges. But such an extreme measure cannot be pulled off today. The government has to tame its own ambitions.

In a way, the last three CSATs have been less problematic. Yet the head of the Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation has been replaced, and politicians and the government are advising his replacement on the difficulty level of the test. The decisions of the institute should not be interfered with in this way.

Time will take care of the other problems. The number of test takers will peak next year and is expected to decrease by 200,000 every year. Earlier this year, Babyra, Korea’s biggest children’s apparel maker, filed for bankruptcy as the number of babies decreased so drastically. The total market capitalization of a private education service provider was once nearly 1.4 trillion won but came down to 1 trillion won as foreign investors cashed out.

In retrospect, there have been too many experiments on children. Even experiments with noble intentions ended up inflicting pain. When politicians meddle with the CSAT, the outcome is never good.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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